Zinc may curb cold symptoms
February 15th, 2011
07:37 PM ET

Zinc may curb cold symptoms

As everyone knows, there's no cure for the common cold. So most people simply suffer through two or more colds a year, often missing days of work or school in the process.

Scientists still haven't found a cure, but a new expert review suggests that taking zinc supplements may help ease cold symptoms—and may even prevent the viral infections altogether.

Nearly 30 years of research on zinc and colds has had mixed results and has been marred by iffy studies. To get a sound big-picture assessment of zinc's benefits, researchers in India sifted through the evidence and analyzed 15 randomized controlled trials—the "gold standard" in medical research—that compared zinc with placebo for the prevention or treatment of the common cold.

Health.com: How to stop a cold in its tracks

When they compiled the evidence, the researchers found that healthy adults and children who took zinc syrup, lozenges, or tablets within 24 hours of their first cough or sniffle experienced shorter and less severe colds than the participants who took a zinc-free placebo. Taking zinc reduced the odds that a person would still be experiencing symptoms at the seven-day mark by more than half.

Zinc—a mineral that occurs naturally in nuts, seeds, meats, fruits, and vegetables—also appeared to help prevent colds. Study participants who took zinc syrup or lozenges daily for at least five months cut their chances of developing a cold by about one-third, on average. As a result, the children in those studies who took zinc missed fewer days of school and took fewer antibiotics than their peers.

"These findings don't surprise me. We're learning that zinc can be quite helpful," says David Rakel, MD, director of integrative medicine at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who was not involved in the review. "We know it is an important mineral for immune function and that it can inhibit the replication of some viruses."

Health.com: The top 7 natural cold remedies: do they work?

Zinc supplements do carry some potential risks. Some of the study participants experienced nausea and a bad taste in their mouths while taking zinc, for instance. And zinc supplements can interfere with the body's uptake of other key minerals such as copper and calcium, Dr. Rakel says.

The authors of the review, which was published in the Cochrane Library, stopped short of recommending over-the-counter zinc supplements. Because the studies included in the review were so varied, they wrote, it wasn't possible to identify an ideal dose, a formulation, or a schedule for taking zinc.

Still, Dr. Rakel says, "zinc looks pretty promising. We need to take precautions, particularly with long-term use, but I'd still recommend it to my patients at the first sign of cold symptoms."

Copyright Health Magazine 2011

soundoff (108 Responses)
  1. shonda

    interesting fact...

    February 16, 2011 at 14:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. ashley

    I have always taken zinc and vitamin c when I start feeling the slightest bit of a cold coming on. It definitely makes a difference for me.

    February 16, 2011 at 14:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. SueRH

    I'm confused. Is there someone on the planet that didn't already know this??

    February 16, 2011 at 14:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. jerry c

    Since I started taking Vit D 3-4 yrs. ago I've never been sick.

    February 16, 2011 at 14:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Jimmy

    Theramax cold and flu is actually from the inventor of zicam, no zinc in it and it works great. I know you can get it at Rite Aid.

    February 16, 2011 at 14:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. NSfromIndiana

    I thought this was common knowledge. I have been taking a multi-vitamin (with zinc) every day for about a year. I have yet to get sick, have a cough, or my usual on-set of strep. If I remember correctly vitamin C is good to prevent colds, but zinc is what you need once you're already sick.

    February 16, 2011 at 14:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Travis

    Hundreds of study show no benfit or even negative effects of taking zinc to "treat" colds, and one group of Indians publishes a positive study and now it is a "miracle drug"? Ah, media science reporting. On with the useless anecdotes!

    February 16, 2011 at 14:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Emma

    Two supplements that absolutely work: UMCKA from Nature's Way and Esberitox from Enzymatic Therapy. I take these as soon as I feel a cold coming on & it stops it from ever turning into anything. These products absolutely do work...my whole family takes them & we are able to stay cold free all winter long up here in WI.

    February 16, 2011 at 14:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. jim

    "...the children in those studies who took zinc missed fewer days of school and took fewer antibiotics than their peers." Great studies, obviously conducted by doctors who didn't know that colds are caused by viruses, so antibiotics wouldn't have worked anyway.

    February 16, 2011 at 15:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Dr. S

    CNN latches onto the most recent study, but doesn't comprehensively compare to all the previous investigation
    So before you all run out to buy Zinc products read on:

    Extracts of pellargonium sidoides (such as Umcka, in liquid form) have actually been shown in blinded, placebo-controlled studies, to reduce the severity and duration of viral URI's and acute bronchitis (an average of 3-days fewer symptoms). This is a safe treatment, and apparently effective when started within the first 1-2 days of the infection.

    Zinc, on the other hand, has still not been conclusively proven to work. These were not consistent or well done studies. The frequency with which zinc lozenges must be taken also makes it difficult to use. The intranasal forms have been associated with permanent anosmia since the mid 1930's, and Zicam nasal gel was nearly recalled by the FDA last year due to this potential side-effect.

    In my family-medicine practice, I still do not recommend Zinc for colds. I have told many patients about Umcka (pellargonium) since the data is a little more impressive.
    Other treatments that have been shown to be ineffective (or that have failed to show benefit): Vitamin-C, Echinacea, Oscillococcinum, goldenseal, pau d'arco, astragalus, larch arabinogalactan, bee propolis, boneset, wild indigo, and Siberian ginseng.

    Bottom line, though: Colds get better regardless of what you do. If you want to occupy yourself with supplements and folks-remedies, go ahead. Just don't try to strongarm your doctor into giving you antibiotics for these pesky viral syndromes.

    February 16, 2011 at 15:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. DP

    I'd like to know more about the interactions of zinc and other supplements. Just from my experience as a metallurgist, I've isolated my zinc supplement from most of my other supplements in my regimen, but it's more of a seat of the pants reaction to zinc and zinc oxide's reactivity with a variety of substances. I'd like to know more about if any real studies have been done on this regarding supplementation.

    February 16, 2011 at 15:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. john W

    Whenever i get a cold, i switch to Marlboro ultra lights instead of regular lights, so that means the change of smokes is correlated to my cold suration or intensity, NOT...

    February 16, 2011 at 16:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. jon

    Newsflash: DRINKING CAFFEINE KEEPS YOU AWAKE. Seriously CNN, tell us something we don't know. Gee, I didn't know Zinc, which is the number one active ingredient in most over-the-counter cold treatments, actually works to curb the symptoms.

    February 16, 2011 at 16:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. lovepanda

    I have a co-worker who takes Echinacea drops everyday and she is ill more often than anybody I know. Poor girl.

    Zinc lozenges... taste like rotting garbage but work.

    February 16, 2011 at 18:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. gd3g

    I took Zycam the nose swabs when they were still on the market and it did take my cold away, BUT replaced my cold symptoms with a severe, itchy rash all over my body that caused me to go to the emergency room. Because of this, I highly suggest to avoid all zycam products. I wouldn't risk it.

    February 16, 2011 at 20:54 | Report abuse | Reply
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    May 24, 2012 at 16:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Jean Polisky

    Cold remedies are almost as common as the common cold, and many are nearly as ancient. The use of chicken soup as a congestion cure dates back centuries. But is longevity any guarantee that a cold remedy works? Do effective cold remedies even exist? Here's a look at some common cold remedies and what's known about them. ^`',

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    June 16, 2013 at 10:48 | Report abuse | Reply
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